DOI’s national monument report fails fact-checking, leaves unanswered questions

When U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came to New Mexico in July as part of his review of national monuments, he met with various groups, including veterans. Zinke retired from the military in 2008 after 23 years as a Navy SEAL. Brett Myrick, who lives near Silver City, had been trying to get a hold of Zinke, even visiting Washington, D.C to try and connect with him. “I know with the transition he was super busy, but I finally wound up taking him on a hike at Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks,” Myrick said. That national monument near Las Cruces is one of two in New Mexico the secretary was evaluating under orders from President Donald Trump.

Despite public support, Zinke recommends changes to NM’s national monuments

National media outlets released a leaked copy of the national monument review submitted by U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the White House in August. Screenshots of the document, labeled as “Draft Deliberative – Not for Distribution,” were released Sunday night. The 19-page report Zinke sent to President Trump includes recommendations about the two national monuments up for review in New Mexico, Rio Grande del Norte near Taos and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument near Las Cruces. Sign up for our weekly environmental email here. Widely expected to recommend changes to Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks, Zinke’s review also calls for “amendments” to Rio Grande del Norte.

Federal moves on wildfires, shortening environmental studies + upcoming public meetings

On Tuesday, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed his agency to “adopt more aggressive practices” to prevent and combat wildfires. We’ll keep you posted on what that actually means, and what it will mean for New Mexico. E&E news reported this week that Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order restricting the length of environmental studies to 150 pages or less, or less than 300 pages for “unusually complex projects.” According to the story, “More broadly, the memo gives Bernhardt the potentially far-reaching responsibility for overseeing the department’s efforts to clear away ‘potential impediments’ and ‘streamline’ the environmental review process.” Before claiming the Number Two position at Interior, Bernhardt was a lobbyist whose clients included mining and energy companies and the nation’s largest irrigation district, California’s Westlands Water District. He represented Westlands in four different lawsuits against the department where he now works. The Associated Press reports that the New Mexico Department of Transportation is putting up warning signs along the stretch of Interstate-10 near the border with New Mexico that’s become increasingly prone to dust storms, putting drivers at risk.

What the state Homeland Security Department needs to do

As we wrote in a story published earlier today, the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management just submitted its 2016 audit to the Office of the State Auditor. That audit hasn’t yet been released publicly, and that may take weeks or months. In the department’s 2015 audit, turned in nearly a year late, auditors found 19 significant problems and noted that “little progress” was made in passing through FEMA money to local governments and tribes. That audit also appears to show that staff leadership was either unwilling or unable to share the information accountants needed to understand what’s happening with its finances and grants. The independent auditors, for example, couldn’t say with certainty whether the agency’s financial records were reliable, and instead had to give the Auditor’s Office what’s called a “disclaimer of opinion.”
Related story: Homeland Insecurity: How ready is New Mexico for when disaster strikes? Here are some of the recommendations auditors offered the department in the 2015 audit.

Homeland Insecurity: How ready is New Mexico for when disaster strikes?

David Silver thinks about the bad things: floods, fires, nuclear meltdowns, zombie apocalypses. As the city of Santa Fe’s emergency management director, it’s his job and, though that last one might sound goofy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a few years ago created a graphic novel about a zombie pandemic moving across the country. Silver chuckles at the campaign. It was a great way to get people thinking about emergency preparedness, he says. Whether preparing for roving bands of the recently reanimated or a natural or human-caused disaster, the steps are the same: have a communication plan, keep an emergency pack on hand and know who to trust.

With an eye to the future, the Pueblo of Santa Ana restores lands, wildlife

Peering through binoculars, Glenn Harper tries to spot the white rumps of pronghorn. The hooved mammals, sometimes mistakenly called “antelope,” are speedy—and hard to spot on an August afternoon atop Santa Ana Mesa. Harper is the range and wildlife division manager with the Pueblo of Santa Ana’s Department of Natural Resources. After a few minutes, he and Dan Ginter, the pueblo’s range program manager, try an easier way to locate the herd. They pull out telemetry equipment, which picks up a signal from one of the animal’s radio collars. There’s a clump of pronghorn lazing near the tree line a few hundred yards away.

About that haze…and more on NM’s environment news

If you’ve been wondering about New Mexico’s hazy skies (and spectacular sunsets) this week, read Tom Yulsman’s post at Discover Magazine about the 77 large fires currently burning more than 1.4 million acres in eight western states. New Mexico was spared from a bad fire season this summer, but other states, including normally wet ones, were not. The National Weather Service in Albuquerque expects the haze to hang around through the weekend. Sign up here to receive our weekly email about environment issues and public meetings around New Mexico. In southeastern New Mexico, a tank battery at an oil well on State Trust Land exploded last week, killing three people. The state and the local sheriff’s office are investigating what happened, and the family of one of those killed is suing Caza Petroleum.

Court says feds broke the law when delaying new royalty rule

A federal judge said Wednesday that the United States government broke the law when it delayed a rule updating how royalties are calculated when companies drill and mine offshore and on federal and tribal lands. Those royalties are paid out to states, tribes and the United States government. After five years of analysis, meetings with stakeholders and public comment, in 2016 the Office of Natural Resource Revenue (ONRR) issued a rule updating valuation rules, which had been set in the 1980s. ONRR estimated the changes would increase royalty collections by $71.9 to $84.9 million annually. The rule took effect on January 1, 2017 and initial reports were due in February.

State Land Office extends grace period to Houston-based drilling companies

New Mexico’s commissioner of public lands announced he’s giving Houston-based oil and gas companies a break as the city struggles with the impacts of Hurricane Harvey. Aubrey Dunn said his office is offering a grace period to the 25 Houston companies and subsidiaries with state leases. The extension moves the Sept. 25 due date for royalties and interest on oil, gas and carbon dioxide extracted from leases on state trust lands to Oct. 25.

State board rejects petition to regulate greenhouse gases

Last week, Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians, asked the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) to establish regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state. That board, whose members are appointed by the governor, is responsible for rules related to public health issues like air quality, food safety and hazardous waste. By a four-to-one vote, the EIB denied the petition Ruscavage-Barz brought on behalf of 28 New Mexico children and teens. But she’s hopeful that there’s room for a conversation with the New Mexico Environment Department, the agency that was moving forward with strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address the impacts of climate change just six years ago. Ruscavage-Barz said the board encouraged the group to work with the state agency and other stakeholders and come up with an enforceable plan.